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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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Northern voters need a reason to trust the Conservatives again

(Alamy)

4 min read

The 2019 General Election was a watershed moment for the Conservative Party. By winning 45 traditional ‘Red Wall’ seats, the Tories broke Labour’s monopoly over northern England and demonstrated they can win in post-industrial Britain.

But four years and three prime ministers later, the Conservatives’ newfound electoral coalition is at risk of collapse. Many northern voters lent their votes to “Get Brexit Done” and will want fresh ideas before casting their ballot for the Conservatives in the next election.

After decades of neglect under Labour, many northern towns and cities are starting to benefit from devolution, investment and reindustrialisation thanks to Conservative policies. But there's no room for complacency. The north of England is now competitive again, and no political party should take its support for granted. Home to almost a third of England's seats and its greatest cities and counties, the Conservatives must make a dedicated offer to win in the region again.

The north of England is now competitive again, and no political party should take its support for granted

The challenge is enormous. Once again, the Conservative Party's brand is in dire straits, with the 2019 coalition fraying. The Labour Party is determined to rebuild the Red Wall, and the Liberal Democrats are threatening the Blue Wall in Southern England. The Conservatives must reject voices calling for focusing on its heartlands and traditional base. It needn't pick one area over the other; it can and has won both. But the real test is in the north of England. Following the post-Brexit political realignment, the Conservatives will struggle to secure another majority without winning Red Wall seats.

There needs to be a voice for the north inside the Conservative Party but outside Parliament to make this case. Enter the Northern Caucus. We are a group of centre-right thinkers from across Westminster and beyond to champion the north of England and develop bold new ideas to keep the Conservatives competitive in the region. Ultimately, the Prime Minister has a year to win back 2019 voters, and we want to be a catalyst for ideas to deliver for the north so levelling up is a reality, not just rhetoric.

Devolving powers to directly elected mayors is a major Conservative success story. But a third of northerners still can't elect a mayor and reap the benefits localised power can bring to their community. Tees Valley is an example of how devolution can transform a local area, and Ben Houchen shows how the Conservatives can win mayoralties in historic Labour strongholds. The York and North Yorkshire Combined Authority is a significant step forward. But the Conservatives need a programme to devolve more powers and create more mayors faster at the next election.

But it's about more than localised powers. The United Kingdom also needs a joined-up industrial strategy that channels the north's strong manufacturing heritage and delivers reindustrialisation. The Covid-19 pandemic demonstrated the fragility of Britain's supply chains.

Britain is a world leader in research and innovation – however, much of the post-development manufacturing is spread across the globe. Instead, the Conservatives have a real opportunity to reignite the region's industrial base by incentivising 'Golden Triangle' firms to use northern manufacturers. It would catalyse investment in businesses and skills across the north while also helping secure Britain's supply chains as we enter a period of global economic uncertainty.

Last year, on the steps of Downing Street, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak claimed: “The mandate my party earned in 2019 is not the sole property of any one individual, it is a mandate that belongs to and unites all of us”. With Brexit largely resolved, he must deliver on his promise and give post-industrial northern voters a reason to trust the Conservatives again.

 

Callum Newton, founder of the Northern Caucus and senior researcher at Onward. David Skelton, author of The New Snobbery. Dr David Jeffrey, senior lecturer in British politics at the University of Liverpool and chair of the City of Liverpool Conservatives.

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